What's the effect of children's exposure to actual violence as victims or as witnesses?

Effects of Violence

It's unfortunate that children may encounter violence at all. Two of the more common types of violence children may experience are domestic violence and community violence. In general, domestic violence covers violent acts within the child's family group. That may include the child's biological relatives or any stepparents or other people living in the child's home.

Community violence seems simple enough to define on the surface -- it's violence that happens within a child's community. But defining the actual community is more difficult -- is it the neighborhood? Is it a certain measurable radius around the child? And if a child doesn't experience the violence directly as a victim or witness, what effect might that have? These are questions psychologists and childcare specialists have to answer to create meaningful studies.

Young children exposed to domestic violence react differently than older children in the same situation. Infants and toddlers may find it difficult to trust others after witnessing violence or show a lack of energy or enthusiasm. Slightly older children may develop problems with aggression, including bullying or being cruel to animals. School-age children who've witnessed domestic violence may model their views on gender roles based on what they've seen. This could lead to boys growing up to be abusive toward women or girls entering sexual relationships early or tolerating an abusive partner.

Children who witness or experience community violence may be more likely to join a gang or abuse drugs. In turn, that can lead to an increased risk of injury, disease or death. They can also show symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Other symptoms may include developmental problems -- some research shows a possible connection between violence and learning disabilities. Children may also experience sleep disorders or become insecure and anxious. They may develop self-esteem issues as well. And it's possible that children who are victims or witnesses to violence may themselves become violent in adulthood, creating a cycle of violence that's difficult to break.

Children's health is an important issue. We need more research to narrow down the variables to determine how violence affects children so that we can treat both the symptoms and the underlying cause. It's important to remember that violence has a negative impact. But it's just as important to admit that without knowing the nature and extent of that impact, our efforts to help these children won't be as effective as what they need and deserve.

Learn more about human behavior by following the links below.

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  • Analytical Sciences. "Children Exposed to Violence: Current Status, Gaps and Research Priorities." NICHD Workshop on Children Exposed to Violence. Washington, D.C. July 24-26, 2002. (Aug. 10, 2010) http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/upload/children_violence.pdf
  • Baker, Linda L., et al. "Children Exposed to Violence." Centre for Children and Families. 2002. (Aug. 11, 2010) http://www.lfcc.on.ca/police-us.PDF
  • Edleson, Jeffrey L. "Children's Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence." University of Minnesota. May 6, 1997. (Aug. 11, 2010) http://www.ncdsv.org/images/ChildrenWitnessingAdultDV.pdf
  • Finkelhor, David, et al. "Children's Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey." U.S. Department of Justice. October 2009. (Aug. 10, 2010) http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf
  • National Center for Children Exposed to Violence. (Aug. 10, 2010) http://www.nccev.org/
  • Unicef. "Behind Closed Doors." Unicef: Child Protection Section. 2006. (Aug. 10, 2010) http://www.unicef.org/media/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf
  • Vuong, Linh. "Children Exposed to Violence." Focus. August 2009. (Aug. 11, 2010) http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/dnld/Home/focus0809.pdf